Too often, veteran nurses are let go from their positions for minor or unclear reasons, causing these healthcare professionals to wonder if their dismissal actually had more to do with their age.
Last year, a U.S. District Court ruled that the case of a nurse claiming age discrimination against her former employer could go forward. Despite receiving positive feedback during her employment, she regularly encountered objectionable comments about her age from both supervisors and peers. When did being older become synonymous with being inept?
Age discrimination in nursing diminishes the quality of patient care, damages important mentoring relationships, and worsens the nursing shortage—all because of long-standing biases among many administrators and supervisors as well as generational tensions between veteran nurses and their younger colleagues.
Far too many healthcare organizations consider older age a detriment. Supervisors make assumptions about older nurses' abilities, equating their age with a lack of stamina to perform tasks. However, experience and practical knowledge usually mean better judgment in patient care.
Researchers from the University Geriatrics Institute of Montreal found neurological evidence that the brain better allocates its resources as it ages. This study also showed that an older brain can perform as well as a younger one and that older brains in fact are better able to make adjustments when needed, indicating that older nurses can be more confident in their decisions and actions. These skills are learned on the job—not in a classroom.
Contributing to age prejudice is the advent of new technologies like electronic health records, patient-monitoring systems and even devices driven by artificial intelligence. As the healthcare sector becomes more innovative, facilities often put pressure on their staff to adopt and become fluent in these technologies in a short time span. Other times, healthcare institutions roll out new technological systems without dedicating the necessary time to train staff members.
Younger nurses who have just completed school are often trained on these systems and can effectively use them to improve patient care, but veteran nurses are frequently in the position of having to play catch-up, making it difficult for them to balance their current duties along with learning new systems. The older generation of nurses often embrace new technology and its benefits, but trying to find the balance between training and tackling their already heavy list of responsibilities can lead to increased anxiety for veteran nurses and potentially lower their ability to administer patient care.
Even if these pressures don't cause older nurses to retire early, their eventual departure from the field will greatly impact nursing numbers: There are around 1 million nurses, approximately one-third of the workforce, who are older than 50 and within retirement age, according to a 2018 report. Considering that those 1 million nurses also include nursing faculty—the individuals responsible for training new nurses—their retirement could lead to a shortage of instructors, harming the quality of education for new nurses.
Administrators can easily avoid age discrimination. They can mitigate the problem by acknowledging potential age biases, fostering a work environment that values the experience of veteran nurses while enabling them to obtain valuable new skills, and encouraging continued development of mentoring relationships between older and younger nurses.
Institutional biases are not only bad for patients, they're soul-crushing for nurses who have dedicated their lives to providing this crucial care. Healthcare organizations must do better to end age discrimination or they will ultimately endanger the lives of those who need their help. An alliance between the new nurse and the experienced one is an imperative for excellence in patient care and improved outcomes, now and in the future.